Civil service chief: ‘Technology is both an enabler and a taskmaster’

Cabinet secretary says that tech presents challenges as well as opportunities

Credit: Tumisu from Pixabay

Whitehall’s most senior civil servant has said technology is “both an enabler and a taskmaster” for effective government, and can create problems which are “the enemy of radical solutions and reform”.

In a speech given to mark the conclusion of his first year in office, cabinet secretary Simon Case pondered how the UK’s systems of senior ministers and officialdom – designed a century ago – have “survived into the digital age”.

“The immediate answer is that, even in the era of ever-present social media and global financial markets that never sleep, when it works well, cabinet government and the committee system still deliver effective government,” he said.

But these models continue to “face constant challenges”, according to Case, with none bigger than the rise of online platforms and other new technology, and the profound changes they have brought about.

“When something happens, everyone – government, public, media – can hear about it at much the same time; government cannot count on having prior information, leading to a reactive rather than a proactive position,” he said. “Also, thanks to technology, we can find ourselves with too much information, creating the ‘signal versus noise’ conundrum: How do we determine what is significant in the mass of information?”

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“And this system of government leads to another challenge, which is more cultural: the danger that in each conversation or policy debate, you go over every possible risk factor – who will be the winner, the loser: what are the upsides [and] the downsides – until you reach the lowest common denominator position. Which can be the enemy of radical solutions and reform.”

Case, who was speaking to an audience at Newcastle University, proceeded to “set out a few of the things we are doing to address these challenges”.

The first of these is to take “a layered approach to cabinet committees”, in which a small core group of ministers are responsible for setting overall strategy. A larger group, which brings in experts – from both inside government and beyond – when required, is then tasked with overseeing operational issues and delivery.

This model had worked well to support government’s Brexit work and Covid response, Case said.

It will be supplemented by a “more rigorous” appraisal system for permanent secretaries, as well as a new specialist delivery unit in Downing Street; the Labour government of the 2000s ran a similar unit and incumbent PM Boris Johnson has resurrected the model.

“The prime minister holds regular stock-takes to review [progress on government priorities] with secretaries of state and key officials,” Case said. “These tried and tested approaches directly connect the prime minister and his ministers to the realities experienced by the people who use public services every day. Inconvenient truths are hard to duck. Accountabilities are laid bare. A lack of progress is plain to see.”

The cabinet secretary stressed the crucial importance of data to any ambitions to deliver government reform, claiming that “we won’t improve decision-making if we don’t improve our data collection and analysis”.

The use of information during the pandemic – which “started off with officials emailing Excel spreadsheets back and forth late at night, to be turned into PowerPoint slides for ministers the following morning” – had shown the possibilities of data analytics, and provided some lessons for how to do so effectively.

“Within months… we had automated feeds and digital dashboards showing aggregated tallies from the NHS and Public Health England of new cases; hospitalisations; and mortality rates. Thanks to the Office for National Statistics and its Infection Survey we had great insights into the incidence of asymptomatic infection; regional variations in prevalence, and the spread across demographics.

“Our coders and analysts looked at anonymised data sources to create a more accurate picture of what was happening in the country, in terms of health, the economy and public services. This more sophisticated use of data gave ministers confidence to take the necessary, but hard, decisions needed to tackle the virus. And this should be the norm: innovative use of data in policymaking.”

Another new entity in the centre of government – a data science unit in the Prime Minister’s Office called 10DS – will help inform the use of data across government. But, according to Case, “the really big data guns sit in departments – not in the centre”. 

And significant challenges are still faced by organisations across government, according to the Whitehall leader.

“Departments are the real catalysts of change through their use of data in designing and delivering better public services. It’s quite the challenge,” he said. “The problem is that all too often we don’t have the data we need at all. Or we don’t have the data where we need it, when we need it. Or we don’t know how to interpret and display the data we have.”


Sam Trendall

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